(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘magic

“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see”*…

Fake news, like conjuring, plays on our weaknesses — but, as Tim Harford explains, with a little attention, we can fight back…

Why do people — and by “people” I mean “you and I” — accept and spread misinformation? The two obvious explanations are both disheartening. The first is that we are incapable of telling the difference between truth and lies. In this view, politicians and other opinion-formers are such skilled deceivers that we are helpless, or the issues are so complex that they defy understanding, or we lack basic numeracy and critical-thinking skills. The second explanation is that we know the difference and we don’t care. In order to stick close to our political tribe, we reach the conclusions we want to reach.

There is truth in both these explanations. But is there a third account of how we think about the claims we see in the news and on social media — an account that, ironically, has received far too little attention? That account centres on attention itself: it suggests that we fail to distinguish truth from lies not because we can’t and not because we won’t, but because — as with Robbins’s waistcoat — we are simply not giving the matter our focus.

What makes the problem worse is our intuitive overconfidence that we will notice what matters, even if we don’t focus closely. If so, the most insidious and underrated problem in our information ecosystem is that we do not give the right kind of attention to the right things at the right time. We are not paying enough attention to what holds our attention.

The art of stage magic allows us to approach this idea from an unusual angle: Gustav Kuhn’s recent book, Experiencing the Impossible, discusses the psychology of magic tricks.

“All magic can be explained through misdirection alone,” writes Kuhn, a psychologist who runs the Magic Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London. Such a strong claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the control and manipulation of attention are central to stage magic. They are also central to understanding misinformation. The Venn diagram of misinformation, misdirection and magic has overlaps with which to conjure.

[There follows a fascinating unpacking of the relevance of misdirection to to misinformation…]

We retweet misinformation because we don’t think for long enough to see that it is misinformation. We obsess over bold lies, not realising that their entire purpose is to obsess us. We see one thing and assume it is another, even though we are only deceiving ourselves. We will argue in favour of policies that we opposed seconds ago, as long as we can be distracted long enough to flip our political identities in a mirror.

And behind all this is the grand meta-error: we have no intuitive sense that our minds work like this. We fondly imagine ourselves to be sharper, more attentive and more consistent than we truly are. Our own brains conspire in the illusion, filling the vast blind spots with plausible images.

But if you decide to think carefully about the headlines, or the data visualisations that adorn news websites, or the eye-catching statistics that circulate on social media, you may be surprised: statistics aren’t actually stage magic. Many of them are telling us important truths about the world, and those that are lies are usually lies that we can spot without too much trouble.

Pay attention; get some context; ask questions; stop and think. Misinformation doesn’t thrive because we can’t spot the tricks. It thrives because, all too often, we don’t try. We don’t try, because we are confident that we already did…

Simple, but profoundly important, wisdom: “What magic teaches us about misinformation,” from @TimHarford. eminently worth reading in full. (Originally appeared in the Financial Times Magazine, from whence the illustration above.)

Related: the Barnum (or Forer) Effect

Apollo Robbins, world-famous pickpocket and illusionist


As we dissect disinformation, we might spare a thought for Oscar Hammerstein; he died on this date in 1919.  As a newly-arrived immigrant to the U.S., Hammerstein worked in a cigar factory, where he discovered ways to automate the rolling process.  He patented his innovation and made a fortune– which he promptly reinvested in his true passions, music and the arts.  Possessed of a sharp sense of design and an equally good acoustical sense, he built and ran theaters and concert halls, becoming one of Americas first great impressarios…  a fact worth honoring, as history tends to overlook “Oscar the First” in favor of his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, the gifted librettist/lyricist and partner of Richard Rodgers.

Hammerstein (on left, with cigar) and conductor Cleofonte Campagnini


“‘It’s magic,’ the chief cook concluded, in awe. ‘No, not magic,’ the ship’s doctor replied. ‘It’s much more. It’s mathematics.’*…

Michael Wendl (and here) dissects some variants of the magic separation, a self-working card trick…

Martin Gardner—one of history’s most prolific maths popularisers [see here]—frequently examined the connection between mathematics and magic, commonly looking at tricks using standard playing cards. He often discussed ‘self-working’ illusions that function in a strictly mechanical way, without any reliance on sleight of hand, card counting, pre-arrangement, marking, or key-carding of the deck. One of the more interesting specimens in this genre is a matching trick called the magic separation.

This trick can be performed with 20 cards. Ten of the cards are turned face-up, with the deck then shuffled thoroughly by both the performer and, importantly, the spectator. The performer then deals 10 cards to the spectator and keeps the remainder for herself. This can be done blindfolded to preclude tracking or counting. Not knowing the distribution of cards, our performer announces she will rearrange her own cards ‘magically’ so that the number of face-ups she holds matches the number of face-ups the spectator has. When cards are displayed, the counts do indeed match. She easily repeats the feat for hecklers who claim luck…

All is revealed: “An odd card trick,” from Chalkdust (@chalkdustmag). 

* David Brin, Glory Season


As we conjure, we might spare a thought for Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet died on this date in 1131.  While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of the quatrains that comprise the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Omar was one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important works on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle).  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology, and Islamic theology.


“I am sorry I have not learned to play at cards. It is very useful in life: it generates kindness and consolidates society.”*…

Day after tomorrow– this this Wednesday, the 27th– Sotheby’s will be auctioning the late, great Ricky Jay’s remarkable collection of magic publications and artifacts…

… You have the rare opportunity to get your hands on a complete guide to the base practices of highwaymen, sharpers, swindlers, money-droppers, duffers, setters, mock-auctions, quacks, bawds, jilts, etc. in eighteenth-century London. 

That text is part of The Ricky Jay Collection, perhaps the world’s greatest assemblage of books on magic, deception, and trickery. As detailed in this enjoyable New York Times report, the Sotheby’s sale is a cornucopia of oddities from the late conjurer.

What’s really for sale — beyond the Houdini posters, guides to card tricks, and beautiful landscapes painted by armless entertainers — is the source material for Ricky Jay’s storytelling.

Jay (1946-2018) was, by all accounts, one of the world’s greatest practitioners of legerdemain, a word that literally translates as light of hand [see here for its amusing etymology]. In other words, he did card tricks. But not just any card tricks: His 1977 book Cards As Weapons (available for free here!) begins with a letter to the Secretary of Defense explaining just how valuable his skills might be:

Drawing on techniques developed hundreds of years ago by ‘ninja’ assassins, I have developed my own system of self-defence based solely on a pack of cards,” he wrote. “I believe I have discovered a viable method of reducing the defence budget while keeping a few steps ahead of the Russkies.”

And Jay could indeed pierce the skin of a watermelon with a playing card from across a room. But when you came right down to what he did with his 52 assistants, the man was famous for moving pieces of waxed paper around on a table. The gulf between collating stationery and  “the theatrical representation of the defiance of natural law” was filled by his deep knowledge and ready wit.

One of his signature tricks was The Four Queens, in which the waxed rectangles with the Qs in their corners are blended into the pack and need to be reunited. Or as Jay framed it, “I have taken advantage of these tenderly nurtured and unsophisticated young ladies by placing them in positions extremely galling to their aristocratic sensibilities.”

You can really see the storytelling taking shape here in his Sword of Vengeance trick. What do shogun assassins have to do with cards? That’s exactly what you forget to ask until it’s too late:

Jay’s ability to unspool a story was clearly infectious, as his profilers couldn’t resist taking flights of erudition.

“He’s like someone carving scrimshaw while surrounded by Macy’s Thanksgiving Day dirigibles,” wrote Tom Carson in Grantland.

“His patter was voluble, embroidered with orotund, baroque locutions; he would describe the watermelon rind, for instance, as the ‘thick pachydermatous outer melon layer’,” wrote Mark Singer in The New Yorker.

To include him in the pantheon of Great Wits is to recognize why he amassed The Ricky Jay Collection and what he learned from it. The shaggy dog story, as previously detailed in GWQ #101, is a psychological non-sequitur: You follow it at great length to eventually learn it goes nowhere. But in Ricky Jay’s dexterous hands, the story was an ideal way to distract you from his dexterous hands. His words were how he could really transport the audience into a world of wonders. It’s as if he harnessed the shaggy dogs and mushed them through the Iditarod… 

The wit that powered the tricks: “Ricky Jay’s slight of tongue,” from Benjamin Errett (@benjaminerrett)

* Samuel Johnson


As we riffle and cut, we might send accomplished birthday greetings to Marion Eileen Ross; she was born on this date in 1928. An actress with a long history in film (e.g., The Glenn Miller Story, Sabrina, Lust for Life, Teacher’s Pet, Some Came Running, and Operation Petticoat), she is best remembered for her role as Marion Cunningham on the sitcom Happy Days, on which she starred from 1974 to 1984 and for which she received two Primetime Emmy Award nominations. (That said, your correspondent will always remember her for her remarkable performances as Grandma SquarePants in SpongeBob SquarePants.)


“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty”*…

Readers will know of your correspondent’s deep affection and respect for Martin Gardner (c.f., e.g., here), so will understand his inability to pass up this appreciation:

You may think that the most interesting man in the world has a scraggly gray beard, drinks Mexican beer, and hangs out with women half his age. But you’re dead wrong. I discovered the real deal, the authentic most interesting man in the world, on the shelves on my local public library when I was a freshman in high school. His name was Martin Gardner.

I first stumbled upon Gardner’s work while rummaging around a bottom shelf in the rear of the library, right below my favorite book in the building, Jean Hugard’s The Royal Road to Card Magic. The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, published by Gardner in 1959, represented a big leap from Hugard, yet I devoured as much of it as my 14-year-old mind could comprehend. Much of the math was too advanced for me, but the parts I understood charmed and delighted me. I came back the next week to check out The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. I followed up with Gardner’s The Numerology of Dr. Matrix and Unexpected Hangings, also on the shelves on the library, and soon purchased a copy of his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science at a used bookstore. Around this same time, I bought, at great expense, a brand new hardbound copy of 536 Curious Problems and Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney, and learned that this treasure trove of strange and peculiar diversions had been edited by (yes, you guessed it) Martin Gardner. I felt like shouting out: “Mama, there’s that man again!”

Later I learned that Gardner’s expertise extended far beyond math and science. I can’t even begin to explain my delight when I discovered that Gardner fraternized with magicians. During my teen years, I spent countless hours practicing card tricks and sleights-of-hand — I never realized my ambition of performing as a card magician, but the finger dexterity later helped when I switched my focus to playing jazz piano — and I was thrilled to learn that Gardner knew Dai Vernon, Frank Garcia, Paul Curry, Ed Marlo, and other masters of playing card prestidigitation. They were not household names. In my mind, someone like Dai Vernon was way too cool to be known by the uninitiated. But these were precisely the kind of mysterious masterminds of obscure arts that Martin Gardner would include among his buddies.

And finally as a humanities student at Stanford I learned about Martin Gardner’s contributions as literary critic and scholar. His annotated guide to Lewis Carroll is a classic work of textual deconstruction (although Gardner would never have used that term), and my boyhood hero also applied his sharp analytical mind to deciphering the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton, and L. Frank Baum. I could continue the list, but you get the idea. Whatever your interests — whether the theory of relativity or “Jabberwocky,” the prisoner’s dilemma or a mean bottom deal from a clean deck, Martin Gardner was your man. He ranks among the greatest autodidacts and polymaths of the 20th century. Or, as I prefer to say, he was the most interesting man in the world, the fellow I would invite to that mythical dinner party where all parties, living or dead, are compelled to accept your invitation…

Read on for Ted Gioia‘s (@tedgioia) appreciation of Gardner’s autobiogrphical works: “Martin Gardner: The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

* Bertrand Russell


As we add it up, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to J. H. C. (Henry) Whitehead; he was born on this date in 1904. A mathematician (and nephew of Alfred North Whitehead), he was a topographer, one of the founders of homotopy theory, an approach to mapping of topological spaces.

Born in Chennai and educated at Oxford and Princeton, he joined the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II and by 1945 was one of some fifteen mathematicians working in the “Newmanry,” a section headed by Max Newman that was responsible for breaking a German teleprinter cipher using machine methods– which included the use of Colossus machines, early digital electronic computers.

He spent the rest of his career at Oxford (where he was Waynflete Professor of Pure Mathematics at Magdalen College). He served as president of the London Mathematical Society, which created two prizes in his memory: the annually-awarded Whitehead Prize and the biennially-awarded Senior Whitehead Prize.


“oh, it’s a strange magic”*…

A spell for identifying a thief: To find the thief write on a piece of kosher parchment these names [see words at the end of the spell], and hang them around the neck of a black rooster. Then circle around the suspects with the rooster, and it will jump on the head of the thief. And this has been tested.
Kematin kanit kukeiri ve-hikani yazaf

One of the items in our postponed exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is a tiny little codex from sixteenth-century Italy. It is entitled The Tree of Knowledge (Ets ha-Da’at) and contains a collection of some 125 magic spells for all sorts of purposes: curses, healing potions, love charms, amulets. There are a good number of such magical-medical manuscripts in the Hebrew collection, but this volume is special for at least two reasons. First, because of its neat layout and accuracy in its execution. Secondly, because it has an introduction in which Elisha the author tells the story of how he collected these spells.

[There follows the story of the compilation and selection of the spells…]

You can certainly see even from this small selection of spells how valuable the Tree of Knowledge is! Elisha’s long journey from Italy to Galilee through the Mediterranean, his painstaking efforts to acquire hidden and ancient knowledge, were not in vain. And you, dear reader, are only one click away from all this treasure!

Disclaimer: We do not take responsibility for the endurance of these spells. Even strong magic can lose or modify its power over the centuries! Please, do not blame us if you turn into a frog. Try these spells only at your own risk…

From the British Library, “The Tree of Knowledge: magic spells from a Jewish potion book

* Jeff Lynne, ELO, “Strange Magic”


As we contemplate casting, we might recall that it was on this date in 1984 that Dwight Gooden set the record for strikeouts in a season by a rookie– 276 (pitched, in Gooden’s case, over 218 innings). The record, which still stands, was previously held by Herb Score with 246 in 1954.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 12, 2020 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: